“If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
That paragraph is the salient passage of Pope Francis' view of the righteous atheist. The message is very simple: anyone who does God's work is worthy of God's kingdom. The concept isn't new to Catholic theology. It's been taught for years. It isn't even particularly Catholic, although it likely is primarily Catholic; C. S. Lewis essentially espouses the idea in <i>The Last Battle</i>, the final book of the Narnia series.
It is important to note the Pope's words: he doesn't say that bad atheists are saved. Bad people are not saved, including bad Catholics. He doesn't say that atheists who run around purposefully denigrating Christ, Christianity, or religion and God in general are saved. He doesn't say that atheists who actively and unrepentantly sin are saved. He says that the ones who do good are saved. He is saying it as a recognition that God's mercy goes out to whomever God elects to give it, and that it will go to those who do good and act rightly.
This is not earth shattering news. The only reason that the media and the world see it as such is because they are conditioned to a view of Catholicism which sees it as entirely judgmental against non-Catholics. It is not. Catholicism realizes that God, in His judgment, considers all factors both for and against a person. It acknowledges that, while evil is wholly bad, good is entirely good. It may well overshadow bad so much so that it could, under the right circumstances, obliterate it.
What Pope Francis has done is merely say what Catholics have know for ages: the Church, God, is inclusive. It will, He will include anyone who truly desires Him. Even if, on the surface, they insist they do not.